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NASA Mission Achieves Astounding Goal

October 26, 2020 | Utah Public Radio

Listen to the interview (2,472 KB MP3)

Thursday, October 22, NASA received inmages confirming a spacecraft the size of a school bus grabbed a sample from an asteroid over 200 million miles from earth. The cameras and electronics used in this mission were made in Cache Valley.

The OSIRIS REx spacecraft started its journey four years ago with one goal - to come back with a sample from an asteroid - and not just any asteroid. The asteroid Bennu has carbon in the surface rocks, which could provide clues to the origins of life and how the sun and the planets formed.

The asteroid is over 200 million miles away and about the size of football field. The spacecraft is a technical marvel for which Utah can take some credit.

Composite mosaic (PolyCam) image of the Nightingale sample site on the asteroid Bennu. Overlay of OSIRIS REx is shown on the center crater for scale. Large boulder in upper right corner is Mt. Doom, measuring 43 ft. (13 m) at longest axis.
CREDIT NASA/GODDARD/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

Key parts of the spacecraft were built at Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL), headquartered in Logan.

“SDL built the focal plane arrays, the camera systems, the detectors and electronics that are on the spacecraft that take the images of this asteroid,” said Jed Hancock, Executive Director.

Hancock said to pull off the mission the cameras were used to map Bennu’s surface and find a strategic place to sample. The target area became known as Nightingale, a crater bordered by a 43-foot rock called Mt. Doom. Navigating past this obstacle, the spacecraft extended its sampling arm. In a maneuver called “Touch and Go,” the arm touched the asteroid, firing off a jet of nitrogen gas. Surface dust and pebbles were blown up toward the arm - and that's how they got the sample.

“If sufficient mass was collected, the spacecraft will eventually back away from the asteroid slightly, linger there for about six months, and then begin its long journey back to planet earth,” Hancock said.

The spacecraft will be home in 2023, and at that point there will be another Utah connection.

“When the spacecraft comes to the earth, the sample capsule will be released and it will descend through the atmosphere over the West desert in Utah,” Hancock said, “where it will be captured when it's coming down to the earth on its parachute.”

That's when the work to decode the origins of the universe will begin. 

More information about the OSIRIS REx mission can be found here.